I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the 50th anniversary of Capel Celyn reservoir.
This October marks the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the reservoir that flooded Capel Celyn, a rural community in the Tryweryn valley in my constituency. The village, along with other parts of the valley, was razed and then flooded to supply Liverpool and the Wirral with water, primarily for industry.
A private Bill sponsored by Liverpool Corporation was brought before Parliament in 1956. By obtaining authority through an Act of Parliament, Liverpool City Council avoided any requirement to gain consent from the Welsh planning authorities. Despite 35 out of the 36 Welsh MPs voting against the Bill, in 1957 it was passed by Parliament.
The village of Capel Celyn was one of the few remaining Welsh-only speaking communities in existence. It had a school, a post office, a chapel, a cemetery—the usual things—along with a number of farms and homesteads. The culture and life of the people of Capel Celyn might not mean much to those who neither know nor love Wales. To members of the Liverpool Corporation, the farms that they were drowning were no more than convenient stretches of land along a remote valley floor, so the region as a whole—a convenient 800 acres—could thus be put to a more convenient and productive use. To Welsh men and women however, their very names ring like bells—Hafod Fadog, Y Garnedd Lwyd, Cae Fadog, Y Gelli, Pen y Bryn Mawr. But those bells now ring underwater and are heard by no one. It is an evocative image in Wales, which remembers the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod, and the loss associated with inundation.
To understand the strength of feeling in Wales about the event, one must first know something, not of the agricultural potential or the landscape of the Tryweryn valley, but of the character of the community it supported and its place in Welsh life. The people of Capel Celyn were an integral part of the pattern of one of the richest folk cultures in Europe. Cynghanedd poetry was not an academic affectation, but the flower of a robust tradition with a sophisticated metrical discipline that was passed from generation to generation. It was a community with one of the oldest living languages in Europe. It is a language with an unbroken literary tradition, exceeded only by Latin and classical Greek, which was and remains under threat.
No civilised person would wish to see a community of such significance and such high artistic and intellectual attainment invaded and destroyed by an alien institution. Far greater schemes have been rejected by Government to protect wildlife or sites of antiquarian value. The Tryweryn valley was a living community of men and women, young and old, whose continued existence was of far greater moment to Wales, and indeed to Europe, than any ruins or wildfowl, important though those may be.
The value of what was at stake 50 years ago was described in a letter to the Liverpool Daily Post from Mrs Gertrude Armfield, an English woman resident in Wales:
“The way of life nurtured in these small villages which serve, with their chapel and school, as focal points for a widespread population—this way of life has a quality almost entirely lost in England and almost unique in the world.
It is one where a love of poetry and song, the spoken and written word, still exists, and where recreation has not to be sought after and paid for, but is organised locally in home, chapel and school.”
It was not a stretch of land that was flooded against the will of the people of Wales, but a community of people, a culture and a language. People saw the coffins of their parents and grandparents dug up and reburied at Llanycil and Trawsfynydd.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the incredibly passionate speech she is making this afternoon. Does she agree that Tryweryn had a traumatic impact on the Welsh psyche? It is immortalised in the words of Meic Stevens, that great Welsh folk singer, when he says:
“Dŵr oer sy’n cysgu yn Nhreweryn”— it is cold water that sleeps in Tryweryn. Does that not say it all about the impact of Tryweryn on the Welsh psyche?
It does indeed. Another poet, Twm Morys, says of people who drive past the lake, which is of course strikingly beautiful:
“Be’ weli di heblaw dŵr?”
There is more to the place than just the water that we now see and appreciate. The water was for industry in Liverpool, and, indeed, excess water for the Liverpool Corporation to sell at a profit.
But why Wales? Wales is a small country, whose language and way of life was, and is, threatened with extinction—inundation. England on the other hand was a country with 10 times Wales’s area, whose language and life were in no peril. It is safe to say that the English language was then, and remains, the most politically powerful and richly resourced language in the world. There were untapped resources in Cumberland and Westmoreland, where the water of many natural lakes was not being used by any authority. Why insist on flooding a Welsh community for its water? The answer has been given quite openly by those behind the project: they came to Wales, not because water was unavailable elsewhere, but because they could get it at a lower cost. It was purely a matter of business—profits. The issue was not whether Liverpool was to get more water, but how cheaply it could get it.
Another reflection of Liverpool’s attitude towards Wales was its lack of candour. Neither the people of Capel Celyn, nor the people of Wales as a whole, were informed by the council of its intentions. They were left to infer from reports of engineers that the work afoot in the Tryweryn valley would mean something significant to their lives. Those who lived in Capel Celyn facing eviction learned of their fate for the first time from the press. Their reaction was predictable. They put their names to a statement expressing uncompromising opposition. They established a defence fund, contributed liberally to it and, in the best Welsh tradition, set up a Tryweryn defence committee, to which representatives were elected by the public bodies directly concerned, such as the county councils, national park authorities and the Dee and Clwyd river board.
One of the committee’s first actions was to ask Liverpool City Council to accept a strong and representative deputation from Wales, which would put the Welsh case. The request was refused. The town clerk stated that though the water committee would be willing to meet the deputation, the council itself dealt only with important local matters. The rebuff captured clearly the mentality of those behind the scheme—that Welsh opinion was of small importance in comparison with local Liverpool needs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on a significant matter for people in Wales, particularly north Wales. She will be familiar with the pictures of the march through Liverpool by the people of Capel Celyn and elsewhere. Women and children carried banners saying:
“Your homes are safe…Do not drown our homes” to the council offices only to be met with a locked door. She spoke of Liverpool council’s priorities; it is clear in this case that the fate of the people of Capel Celyn was not its priority, and that is certainly a lesson for us for the future as far as Wales’s other natural resources are concerned.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am aware that many people feel strongly about Capel Celyn, and were present and saw the events or were nearer to the events than I was. I find a certain irony in the fact that I am from south-east London, but it is a matter of pride to me that I am talking about this issue today.
Despite the clear and unmistakeable opposition, from not only the people of Tryweryn and the people of Wales, but every single MP from Wales, bar one, Capel Celyn was flooded. Those who advocated the flooding of the village spoke of the employment created by the reservoir. They spoke of the hundreds of jobs created temporarily during the construction phase and “about 20” permanent jobs. Almost any atrocity can be justified in Wales on the grounds that it creates employment. That justification is still used today, most recently perhaps in the case of the so-called “super prison” in Wrexham. Despite the number of prison places needed across the whole of north and mid-Wales being between 700 and 750, a prison to house 2,000 prisoners will be built in Wrexham to accommodate the needs of the north-west of England. The justification? One thousand jobs.
No Welsh man or woman can feel happy about the position of their country when it is possible for anybody outside Wales to decide to take Welsh land and resources regardless of the social and economic impact of that decision on Wales. As the private Bill was passing through this Parliament in 1957, the late Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru’s first MP, spoke of its being
“part of the crippling penalty paid by a nation without a government.”
He also said:
“Had Wales her Government, Liverpool would have had to negotiate with a responsible Welsh body for the resources it required. A unilateral decision to take Welsh land would be as unthinkable as it would be for an English authority to walk into Ireland and take a valuable part of the Gaeltacht.”
It was that blatant disregard for the social and economic impact of the UK Government’s decision on Wales that sparked the national debate about Wales’s constitutional future. Arguably, it led to the election of Gwynfor Evans in July 1966 to the House of Commons, who became, as I mentioned before, the first ever party of Wales MP—Wales’s first independent voice in this Parliament.
The combination of sadness and anger that the events at Capel Celyn caused in Wales also played its part in the demand for the creation of the Crowther commission, or the Kilbrandon commission as it was later rebranded. It sparked a realisation in the minds of the people of Wales that we were not adequately represented in Parliament.
I warmly congratulate the hon. Lady on reminding us of these events that took place 50 years ago. I think I am one of the few people in this debate today who has memories of it, because I was a mature politician at that time. The most remarkable figure that she has cited is that only one of Wales’s MPs supported the flooding of Capel Celyn. We had this extraordinary unanimity. Welsh MPs at that time agreed on nothing, but they came together on this issue, because it was an act that was insulting to the Welsh nation and because a language that echoed down the centuries—a 2,000-year-old language and culture—was given no power to defend itself. I hope that we have learned the lessons of Tryweryn, and its reverberations are carrying on now in our perception of ourselves as a nation and in the need to have our own independent voices.
Indeed. We learned lessons, of course, about what representation actually means and about the impact of not being represented sufficiently, and people came to understand that we were not treated as equal in this unique family of nations.
That understanding, along with the injustice dealt to the people of Wales and Scotland during the 1970s, eventually led to the people of both countries demanding a say in their constitutional future. The 1979 referendums, in which 20% of the Welsh electorate and 52% of the Scottish electorate voted for the creation of national Parliaments, was the first tentative step towards greater autonomy for both nations. Of course, neither country was given a Parliament as a result of those referendums but they laid the groundwork for what followed. And what followed was the historic vote of 1997, in which the people of Wales voted—very narrowly, but they voted—for devolution. That led to the creation, through the Government of Wales Act 1998, of the National Assembly, which was a directly elected democratic body representing the people of Wales.
However, even after the creation of the Assembly and even after the creation of a more powerful Assembly through the Government of Wales Act 2006, the people of Wales still have little say over their natural resources. Wales’s natural resources remain outside the remit of the National Assembly. And on the emotive subject of water, the Secretary of State still reserves the right to intervene on any Welsh legislation that
“might have a serious adverse impact on water resources in England, water supply in England or the quality of water in England”.
Such a section is not included in the Scotland Act 1998. Why? I suggest to the House that Wales is unique in being the only developed country on this Earth that allows a neighbouring country to hold such powers of veto over its legislative competence.
That situation cannot continue. The lesson of 50 years ago is that as long as the Welsh nation has no national freedom, and as long as she is shackled to this imbalanced institution and at a constant democratic disadvantage vis-à-vis England, there will always be another Tryweryn waiting to happen.
Today, in the context of debate about her natural resources, Wales has only the freedom to protest; the freedom to recoil and react, but not to take the initiative, act for herself and make her own choices. Our natural resources are our most valuable assets. The supply of clean, fresh water across these islands is limited and there is now a growing appreciation of its importance as an industrial resource as well as a residential necessity. It must be considered as much a raw material as oil or iron ore, and just as precious. It is one of the most important of Wales’s natural resources, and if we have been irresponsible in the past in our attitude to the rich resources of our land, we must mend our ways.
A resource taken by a city outside Wales is lost to Wales, with no fair exchange. That is a blunt statement of the obvious, but it is a truth that is too often ignored. We can little afford to ignore that statement. As we are so often reminded, Wales is the poor relation in this family of nations.
In the past, Welsh resources have enabled industry to develop in Liverpool, in Birmingham and in the rest of the English midlands, while Wales herself has been largely a stranger to such development. The people of Wales have had to follow her resources to find work, exacerbating the productivity gap between Wales and the rest of the UK. A responsible attitude towards Welsh resources will ensure that the people of Wales have the benefit of those resources in Wales.
It is right that Wales’s natural resources should be used for the enrichment of all the people of Wales, just as the natural resources of every other country are used for the enrichment of their peoples. Until we make the necessary changes to Wales’s constitution, Liverpool’s actions 50 years ago will remain natural, logical, constitutional and perfectly legal into the future.
There is an opportunity ahead of us to ensure that that situation is not allowed to continue; an opportunity to ensure that the people of Wales have full ownership of their natural resources, and to ensure that never again will we see a repeat of the mistakes of our past. We have yet to have sight of the Wales Bill, but we have seen the White Paper, which was entitled, “Powers for a purpose”. It proposes building Welsh devolution on the same foundation as that of Scotland—a reserved powers model. We welcome that proposal with enthusiasm. It is long overdue and Plaid Cymru welcomes it not simply for the clear practical improvements and legal clarity that it will bring, but for the shift in attitude that it will necessitate.
It is right that decisions that affect the people of Wales should be made in Wales by democratically elected representatives, unless there is a good reason for those decisions to be made elsewhere. The reserved powers model will put the onus on the UK Government to justify why a matter should be reserved, rather than justifying why it should be devolved. It will mean that the UK Government, in producing the Wales Bill, must give the people of Wales full ownership of their resources, or justify not doing so. In that case, the UK Government must justify to the people of Wales why they should not have full ownership of their resources, when the people of Scotland have ownership of theirs.
I doubt very much that any Member of this House considers the flooding of Capel Celyn to be justified; I know that Liverpool Council has since apologised and that apology should be accepted in the extensive way in which it was offered. However, the UK Government must now ensure that such an event can never be allowed to happen again. They must ensure that the law is changed, so that a repeat of the events of 50 years ago would be illegal today. Never again should the people of Wales be forced out of their communities against their will, against the will of the whole country and against the will of those who represent us in the directly elected National Assembly; never again should Welsh land, Welsh culture or Welsh communities be allowed to be so drastically undervalued; and never again should Parliament leave such a dark mark on Welsh history that it is commemorated here 50 years later.
Since the flooding of Capel Celyn, there has been a significant development in the national consciousness of Wales. There is no longer anyone in Wales who is not aware that the Welsh are a nation and that Wales is their homeland. While Wales’s voice has been significantly strengthened, her natural resources remain in the hands of a neighbouring country and there have been no developments to make a repeat of the sad event at Capel Celyn illegal. The Secretary of State now has a chance to make his mark on Welsh history. The Wales Bill is an opportunity to put this matter right and I urge him to take it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. We Welsh people—I do not dare say we north Walians—remember the words, “Cofiwch Dryweryn” or “Remember Tryweryn”, and Liz Saville Roberts has spoken powerfully about that experience today. It was something that we never thought would happen. She described how the small Welsh community, with its school, post office, chapel, cemetery and farms, was suddenly underwater.
As we listened to the hon. Lady retell that history—of the Liverpool Corporation, the private Bill in Parliament and the small community of Capel Celyn—it almost felt as if we were hearing a David and Goliath story, only, on this occasion, Goliath won. I am not sure that he did, however. A year after that Bill, in early 1957, the Council for Wales recommended the creation of the then Welsh Office and the Secretary of State for Wales, and that changed the consciousness of so many people in different ways.
Those who have read Lord Elystan-Morgan’s autobiography will know the amazing story of Jim Griffiths, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, in conversation with Nye Bevan. Nye Bevan, of course, belonged to a different tradition from me and my hon. Friend Paul Flynn. We have two traditions in the Labour party on devolution for Wales, and we can safely say that my hon. Friend and I are the ones who have the right views. On this issue, Nye Bevan had the wrong ones. Jim Griffiths spoke to Nye Bevan, and Nye Bevan said, “Jim, do you really believe that we should have a Secretary of State for Wales and a Welsh Office?” Jim Griffiths said, “Yes, Nye, with all my heart I do.” Nye Bevan said, “Then you shall have it.”
What is significant about Capel Celyn is that not one single Welsh Member of Parliament voted for the private Bill. One abstained and all the others voted against. Something happened that flagrantly disregarded the
Welsh people. Of course, it was not the first time that a Welsh community had been displaced to provide water in this sort of way for English cities. It had happened previously in the Vyrnwy and Elan valleys, which were flooded in the late 19th century to create reservoirs serving Liverpool and Birmingham.
Something about Capel Celyn led to greater national consciousness, and that is why Goliath did not win. People considered things differently, and when the Wales Bill is debated, we will be considering things differently. I am delighted that there will be a model of reserve powers. That is right and proper, and it is where our constitutional settlement has taken us.
Some of the issues related to Capel Celyn are much more complex. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd mentioned the fact that, as well as being a north Walian, she is also a south Londoner. She and I—I think uniquely among Welsh MPs—can claim to be that. I lived in Elephant and Castle for several years. There are not too many Members of Parliament who are south Londoners and north Walians, and that helps us realise that, when we talk about the borders of Wales, things are that bit more porous. What was ironic about Capel Celyn was the number of Welsh people who lived in Liverpool. There has always been open migration across our borders.
When we speak about national powers, all of which are immensely important, we realise that, sometimes, even within those structures, there is a fear of big powers taking over little powers. That can be at county council level. I think sometimes of Denbighshire, and the closure of small schools. The hon. Lady will be aware of that with Gwynedd Council and the schools there, which close perhaps a little more often than she might like. Denbighshire is part of north Wales, and when I speak to anyone in Llandrillo in my constituency, they sometimes see the county council as a problem. These are not easy issues.
Today we remember the people of Capel Celyn and Tryweryn. Without quite going back to Cantre’r Gwaelod, we must remember those communities and say that if any good at all has come out of this issue, it is that greater debate on national consciousness. Some of us, including me, could never support independence for Wales—I am not being entirely serious, but if we were talking about independence for north Wales, I might be a little more sympathetic to the idea—but as we have this debate, let us remember what happened in Capel Celyn as we develop our great nation in whichever way we wish. Let us not forget. I congratulate the hon. Lady on an outstanding speech.
As always, Mr Gapes, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank Liz Saville Robertsfor securing this debate and pay tribute to her for raising such an important historic and emotive issue for the people of Wales.
Let me say at the outset that the whole situation was a shameful chapter in Welsh history and it should not be forgotten. In fact, the words “Cofiwch Dryweryn”, or “Remember Tryweryn”, painted on a wall in Llanrhystud, outside Aberystwyth, are instantly recognisable to people across Wales as they travel between the north and south. Those words remind us all of some of the darkest and most regrettable days in modern Welsh history. I am aware of the long-running campaign to have that sign declared a national monument, and I pay tribute to the work of Mr Williams, who has championed that. It is one for the Welsh Government, but the strength of feeling among people in Wales should certainly be heeded.
Those words, “Cofiwch Dryweryn”, speak of one of the darkest times in modern Welsh history, when members of one of the last Welsh-only speaking communities were forced from their homes to make way for a reservoir to provide the city of Liverpool with additional water for its people and industry, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd highlighted. I welcome Liverpool City Council’s apology for its actions. I commend Lord Roberts of Llandudno for working with the council to ensure that that apology was forthcoming.
As Susan Elan Jones mentioned, communities in Wales had previously suffered hardship to provide water. The village of Llanwddyn in Powys was flooded to make way for Lake Vyrnwy in the 1880s. During the passage of the Bill, there were protests from all corners of Wales—from local authorities, churches, individuals, community groups and the charitable sector. Members of all parties criticised the Bill and all Welsh MPs from all political parties, bar one individual, voted against it. The voice of the people of Wales was ignored, however, and sadly the Bill passed.
As the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said, Afon Tryweryn was flooded in 1965, despite a fight by the villagers and their supporters. Twelve houses and farms were submerged, as were the church, the cemetery, the post office and the local school, with 48 of the 67 people living in the valley losing their homes. Let me be clear: the flooding of Afon Tryweryn was a dark day in modern Welsh history, and I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to try to defend it today.
Those incredible events arguably started the momentum for Wales to have more control over its own affairs. Last year, the Wales Office celebrated the 50th anniversary of the creation of the post of Secretary of State for Wales, a post that the Prime Minister continues to believe is required to provide a strong Welsh voice at the Cabinet table. Soon afterwards, the Welsh Office was established to complement the work of the Secretary of State, and it took on more and more responsibility for Welsh issues from other Departments in Whitehall.
In 1997, Wales took another massive step forward, voting to establish the National Assembly for Wales. This body, directly elected by Welsh people, took on responsibility in vital areas such as planning, water and the Welsh language. In fact, I can still remember, upon being elected to the Assembly in 1999, debating the details of the break-up of Hyder, the company that owned Welsh Water. It led to the sell-off and then the transfer to Western Power Distribution, which led to Glas Cymru. It was sold for £1. That allowed for an innovative model: Welsh Water has no shareholders, so any surplus can be reinvested for the benefit of Welsh customers. The model is unique to the United Kingdom. It provides greater diversity of business models in Wales and around the rest of the country.
In 2011, following an overwhelming referendum victory, the Assembly became a full law-making body. The provisions of the Wales Act 2014 provided for the political institutions to become more responsible and responsive. In what some might argue as appropriate timing on the 50th anniversary of Tryweryn, a new Wales Bill will be published shortly. It will deliver on the commitments to further devolution to Wales made in the cross-party St David’s day agreement in areas such as energy and the environment. The reserved powers model will also provide additional clarity over what the Assembly is responsible for and what this Parliament is responsible for. It offers to provide a clearer, stronger and fairer devolution model.
In the 17 years since they came into being, the Assembly and its Executive, now rightly labelled the Welsh Government, have developed into mature political institutions, elected by the people of Wales to carry out their will in devolved areas. Ignoring the views of the people of Wales in flooding Capel Celyn was and is still seen as incomprehensible by most. Put simply, it would now be impossible. I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd for securing the debate. I specifically want to refer to water in my response and address the calls that Wales does not have power over water as it stands.
The St David’s day agreement clearly stated that water is now being considered as part of the joint Government review programme following the second Silk Commission. There are significant complexities because the Wales boundary does not tie in with the Welsh water boundary, and Welsh Water, ironically, has powers over some water supplies in Cheshire. Such matters need to be resolved and teased out. I do not want to reject absolutely the calls that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has made, but the issues will be considered at length and in greater detail as part of the joint Government working review programme,
The debate has been extremely important. It has enabled us to reflect on some of the darkest days in Welsh history. However, I do not think we can deny the interdependence that we have across the border. Many comparisons have been made with Scotland, but there is a large geographical area between the urban conurbations of Scotland and those of northern England. In Wales, particularly north-east Wales, there is a free-flowing border, which adds to the complexity. So the model for Scotland is not necessarily the right model for Wales.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd used the prison in Wrexham as an example, but I take that as a positive example. Our interdependence creates greater economic opportunity for us in Wales to provide the services and skills that are necessary to fulfil the needs of people in Wales, England and the rest of the United Kingdom. I thank the hon. Lady and other hon. Members for their contributions to one of the most powerful debates that I have sat through in Westminster Hall. It is something we will never forget.
Thank you, Mr Gapes. I appreciate the opportunity to wind up the debate.
To hear the words “Cofiwch Dryweryn” quoted by people from the other two parties present is a source of pride. It shows that there is a general appreciation of the impact that the event had on people in Wales during the 1950s and 1960s. We are still seeing the repercussions now.
I am delighted by the very wise comments of fellow hon. Members this afternoon. It was borne in on me in preparing for this debate that the act of remembering is integral to the wellbeing of a nation, and the debate here today denotes part of the remembering process for Wales.
One of the points in my hon. Friend’s speech that impressed me immensely was the call that she made for Wales’s natural resources to be controlled by the people of Wales. I do not want to introduce a discordant note into the debate, but does she share my disappointment with the less than fulsome reply from both Front Benchers? One would have hoped—
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this part of the debate is for wind-up remarks. This is not part of the wider debate. If he concludes his remarks, I will be grateful.
I am sure that my hon. Friend understands the point I was making.
I would like to refer to some of the Minister’s remarks. I mentioned the Government of Wales Act 2006, which specifically provides that the water that England takes from Wales must not be in any way restricted, and I like to think that Wales will be able to make best use of its resources in future. Although I am delighted to hear about rationalisation and realignment of border arrangements with the various water authorities, I think we are possibly talking about different things.
To come back to the prison in Wrexham, and jobs perhaps being perceived as a panacea for all ills, I think that the people of Wrexham feel differently about it and there are concerns about the social impact of having a prison of that size, and about who will come to fill those jobs.
I am delighted to have had the opportunity to hold the debate today. My agent, Elwyn Edwards, who spent much of his childhood years involved—indeed, he got into terrible trouble for missing school to protest in Liverpool —will also be glad that we have held this debate. Some of us will speak in a rally on the dam in Capel Celyn on Saturday—weather permitting—and we will take the message forward. Diolch yn fawr.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the 50th anniversary of Capel Celyn reservoir.